How Indigenous reporters are elevating true crime

In the podcasts ‘Finding Cleo’ and ‘Thunder Bay,’ First Nations reporters reinvent a common formula. Can they find even bigger audiences?

 

In May 2017, Connie Walker, a longtime reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, walked through Park View Cemetery in Medford, New Jersey. It was a sunny morning, with birds squawking, and Walker held a microphone to pick up the crunchy footsteps that she and her producer, Marnie Luke, made among the graves.

Walker knew what she was looking for; she’d seen a photograph of the squat headstone for 13-year-old “Beloved Daughter, Cleo L. Madonia,” born 1965, died 1978. “It’s quiet here, which is good,” Walker narrated, “because I imagine we’re a strange sight.”

Connie Walker at the grave of a Cree girl, Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, who was forcibly removed from her family in Canada and adopted into a U.S. family.
Courtesy of Connie Walker

The cemetery search begins the fourth episode of Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo, the second season of Walker’s popular podcast. Finding Cleo investigates what happened to Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, a Cree girl from the Little Pine Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, who was forcibly taken by social workers, adopted in the United States, and given a new name. Over the course of the show, Walker, also a Cree woman from Saskatchewan, and Cleo’s biological siblings learn how Cleo ended up in Medford and what happened in the final moments of her short life.

Finding Cleo is generally considered a true-crime podcast, giving it the advantages of the popular genre; at the time of this writing, six out of 10 podcasts in Apple’s top U.S. charts involved murders, swindlers or nightmarish doctors. Finding Cleo has been downloaded over 17 million times and frequently appears at the top of Canadian podcast charts, along with Thunder Bay, a podcast by Anishinaabe host Ryan McMahon that investigates crimes against Indigenous residents in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

But Finding Cleo doesn’t focus on a death for its own sake. The story’s true mystery lies in systems that dwarf a single event: the Canadian government, child welfare practices, Indian residential schools and the colonial legacies that shadow Indigenous lives. The Indigenous reporters behind Finding Cleo and Thunder Bay weave true crime and Indigenous history together — deploying a trusted formula to reveal a world frequently invisible to white listeners, but reaching beyond the violence that draws much of the public’s attention.

In the cemetery, Walker gasps, “There it is,” she says, spotting the headstone. Walker and Luke stand quietly in front of it. The discovery is a turning point that will lead Walker to documents about Cleo’s adoption and to people who knew her during her short lifetime. Walker works like a detective in reverse — she finds the grave to confirm Cleo’s death, but it’s a better clue to the mystery of her complicated life.

IN THE FOUR YEARS since Serial, the true-crime show so trailblazing it was simply named after its format, podcasts have become a formidable medium. If audiences keep growing, within two years, more than half of all Americans will have listened to podcasts. Major publications have reporters who cover them as a beat, and juicy ones like Dirty John have been adapted for television. Gimlet Media, a for-profit podcast network started in 2014, produces 24 shows and routinely brings in millions of dollars.

Investigative and true-crime podcasts have reached the point of parody. Saturday Night Live has spoofed them more than once. A sketch about an award show called “The Poddys” includes categories like “Best Nervous White Girl In A Place She Doesn’t Belong.” In her acceptance speech, the award winner thanks “the thousands of women who chose to listen to gruesome confessions of neo-Nazis while walking on their treadmills.”

But parody comes from familiarity, something reporters like Walker use to their advantage. The true-crime elements of Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo — scattered clues, cliffhangers — work to push listeners toward the structures behind events. Much of the show centers on the Sixties Scoop, when Canadian social workers moved tens of thousands of Indigenous children into foster and adoptive homes. In Saskatchewan, the Adopt Indian Métis program ran ads about available children in newspapers, on television and on the radio. Walker also interrogates Indian residential schools, some of which survived into the 1990s. Cleo’s mother, Lillian, was sent to one. “I know that to understand Cleo, I have to understand what her mother went through,” Walker narrates.

Walker prefers being this kind of historical detective. “Some of the feedback we got that was the most meaningful was people who said, ‘I thought I knew about residential schools and about their legacy, but now I understand it in a different way,’” she said. “That’s the power of storytelling, and that's the power of being able to create space, to have empathy, and to connect with people who have been misrepresented in the media.”

Connie Walker tells the stories of Indigenous women and children in her podcast, Missing and Murdered.
CBC Media Centre

Walker isn’t a big fan of true crime podcasts herself, but she appreciates their ability to guide listeners to bigger ideas. A longtime television reporter for the CBC, she had never produced a podcast before the first season of Missing and Murdered, which focused on the killing of a Gitxsan woman named Alberta Williams. The form, she realized, could provide the time and context for stories that two-minute news spots couldn’t. 

In Finding Cleo, time is reserved for talking about the reporting itself. For Walker, transparently discussing the difficulties of reporting traumatic events is one of the podcast’s most enduring elements. She wrestles with whether to interview one of Cleo’s siblings, April, who lives with bipolar depression. “I know that Finding Cleo is so important to her family, and this family’s story deserves to be told,” she says in the episode. “But I don’t want to make life more difficult for any of them.”

These practices are somewhat rare in the field. Maya Goldberg-Safir is the artistic director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, known as “the Oscars of radio,” which this year awarded Finding Cleo “Best Serialized Story.” “I sort of ate it up,” she said about the show. She thought the true-crime genre gained a new edge in Walker’s hands. “She’s not only telling us the story, but she’s demonstrating how to tell the story,” Goldberg-Safir said. “We heard Sarah Koenig tell the process of Serial, but I think Connie’s process is particularly important to her.”

Walker clearly feels at home in parts of Finding Cleo, particularly when she’s visiting the Little Pine First Nation or hearing people speak Cree. This instinctual sensitivity is helpful during interviews, and it allows Walker, and her listeners, to access an internal bank of experience. Walker’s emotions are not a separate layer of the podcast; they’re organic outgrowths from the collective weight of many stories like Cleo’s.

RYAN MCMAHON KNOWS FEW THINGS as well as a microphone. He’s worked as a standup comedian for years, and podcasting isn’t new to him: He hosts two and runs an Indigenous podcast network. But making Thunder Bay, distributed by Canadaland, felt different.

tapodcasts1-jpg
In his podcast, Thunder Bay, Ryan McMahon digs into the systematic forces affecting a community in Ontario.
Courtesy of Ryan McMahon
McMahon grew up in the Couchiching First Nation, a small community in Ontario on the Minnesota border. He always knew about the problems of nearby Thunder Bay, population 100,000, that affect its Indigenous communities: a high murder rate, dangerous encounters for Indigenous residents and government corruption. McMahon wanted to investigate the forces that propped up its patterns of violence.

“There are podcasts that try to solve murders,” McMahon says in the first episode. “This isn’t one of those podcasts. The question I’m trying to answer is not who killed all those kids. It’s what killed all those kids.” 

Thunder Bay profiles webs of crime and the colonial patterns that created them. It’s a collage rather than a case file, often highlighting the reporting of local journalists. One episode details the mayor’s involvement in protecting a lawyer accused of sex abuse; another explores the city’s community of sex workers; and another, one of the most affecting, traces the pattern of uninvestigated disappearances of Indigenous teenagers. As in Finding Cleo, structural racism connects the dots. 

Like Walker, McMahon isn’t on Team True Crime. He considers the genre “sort of bottom of the barrel,” with podcasts that often value morbidity over thoughtfulness. “But I will say that a lot of the top true-crime stuff is subverting the genre.” (Finding Cleo, In the Dark and My Favorite Murder are among his favorites.)

Listeners appreciate Thunder Bay’s approach; the podcast has made it to the top of Canada’s Apple charts, and it broke into the U.S.’s top 100, which McMahon called a rare feat for a Canadian podcast. (Finding Cleo made it all the way to number two in the U.S.) But neither show up on Apple’s U.S. list of the best podcasts of 2018, nor do they appear on many publications’ year-end roundups, losing out to the usual goliaths: The New York Times’ “The Daily” and “Caliphate,” or the third season of Serial.

It could be that American listeners simply choose This American Life over Canadian stories. McMahon, however, thinks otherwise: “The U.S. has no interest in remembering that Indigenous voices are still there,” he said.

“What we’re talking about is an industry that has yet to make space for us on purpose,” he said. “We have the chance to make sure that the space is equitable, diverse and empowered by ensuring that there are certain voices at the table. But we have to do that on purpose.”

Thunder Bay's high murder rate and government corruption impact its large Indigenous population.

WHEN FINDING CLEO WON “Best Serialized Story” at Third Coast, it competed with “the most well-resourced and funded institutions in American podcasting,” Maya Goldberg-Safir said. Standing with her team at the Chicago award ceremony, Connie Walker accepted the trophy — a custom-made wooden radio — noting how the issues they investigated haven’t ended.

“(Indigenous children) are still being separated from their parents and their families and communities, and ending up in the child welfare system. Indigenous women and girls are still disproportionately victims of violence in Canada and in the United States,” she said.

As a part of the award, Finding Cleo was distributed to public radio stations around the country, allowing Americans to stumble across the podcast and skirt the “subscribe” button.

The special aired during Thanksgiving weekend, a fraught time for many Indigenous people in the U.S. As Isabel Vázquez, Third Coast’s producer, noted: That felt right.

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

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